A tiny sticky-floored venue which I had shamefully never been to before, hidden somewhere between the fast-food chains of Notting Hill Gate, lies this shabby-chic club: battered leather couches and a stage area that is more akin to a garage practice space…but perhaps is it this that gives the venue and the on-going night Communion its cosy, homely feel. From the minute we stepped down the stairs to the Mumford & Sons-esque hoedown below – that was Amber States – it was pretty certain we had entered into a net of friends, family and fellow musicians who see this set up as a hang out almost; not a commercial enterprise to shoot these youngsters to stardom. Instead as one of the three founders, Kevin Jones, of Cherbourg stated, it was also “a good place to find a banjo player if you need[ed] one”.
The night started out back in 2006; with Jones, Mumford & Sons Ben Lovett and their producer Ian Grimble, looking to provide not only a humble surrogate family for keen musicians, their friends and fans but an intimate environment in which to expose the home-grown talents flooding through the doors, allowing them to practice and flourish in a community type setting. The night has relied on the word of mouth of a like-minded set of folk, who incidentally, are keen on letting the spotlights fall on the nu-folk London scene, exposing artists from both the capital, the UK as a whole, Stateside and Down under. It is no great surprise then that the night has also been set up in Oxford, Bristol, Dublin and even Sydney.
Over the evening we were treated to seven acts of varying sizes and ages. Amber States’ sunshiny four-piece folk ensemble complete with Phil Noyce on cello, was a wonderfully energetic and infectious start to proceedings. “Son of a Gun” as a closing track leaving you with the sense that you were watching something special – that could both tug at the heartstrings while keeping a smile on your face.
Alice Gold’s solo performance on electric guitar with rasping vocals was a refreshing alternative to more recent rising female singer songwriters who are still blazing the trail Laura Marling ignited. She offered up an edge and passion that in fact came across more so live and alone on stage than in her recordings with a band. Watching Gold play and hearing her jovial friends jokingly heckle as she talked of sleep deprivation being her downfall of the night gave a real sense of the ethos of the evening: Talented, yet grounded fun.
Jamie Ley and band of three owed their twee likeability to toy xylophones and melodica along with clever lyricisms more deftly constructed than most artists who looked as young as these. He commended his predecessors the Staves on their performance which was full of rafter raising harmonies and powerful vocals. They needed little other than these melding vocals; which were akin to The Unthanks, who recently played London’s Union Chapel, to bowl us over. With unobtrusive accompaniment here and there by a ukulele, guitar or whistling they proved that simplification was the essence of their sound. The crowd that formed at their feet clearly indicated these girls were the highlight of the evening and the round of applause they received a sure indication that they deserve all the acclaim they get. Upon asking the sound desk how many songs they had left various members shouted out “two”, “three” hoping they had enough in their set to go on until curfew. The three sisters from Watford spoke about it being “the kind of place that makes you want to write about getting out of it” which was later encapsulated in their track “Mexico”. They’ve just released an EP entitled Facing West which is most certainly worth a listen, though the vocal powers of the three is really something you need to witness the warmth of in a live setting.
Sadly the one surprising disappointments was Pete Lawrie, who on record I very much enjoyed, but I have to say momentarily killed the humble vibe of peaceable musicians and fans gathered with his “thank you London’s” and bouncing around the stage in a Bruce Springsteen manner that didn’t quite feel ironic enough to be a guy just having a good time. He has commercial appeal sure, but I did just feel I was watching yet another James Morrison in the making. That said, his band and voice are great – I just wish he’d tone it down a bit and I may have been able to take him a little more seriously.
Along with The Staves, To Kill a King seemed to draw the larger audiences and with their five band members crammed on stage they seemed perfectly at home. The vocalist’s baritone had something distinctly Paul Banks of Interpol about it, giving the songs a jilted, almost deadpan edge that worked nicely alongside their The Shins style instrumentation. They even treated us to their more sombre take on the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps”.
The crowd for headliners Philadelphia Grand Jury seemed to dissipate to friends, family and cult type fans (they certainly seemed to have that kind of status), but I think this was partly due to their late slot post-11pm on a Sunday. A whole bunch of energy, their drummer who I’m estimating was around 60 was more energetic than all the 20 year old musicians who played tonight put together. Their set also featured some weird pre-recorded audio introductions and “banter” between songs that was rather surreal but highly comical.
A fantastic night that sadly for us punters was the last of the summer, I guess many of the artists will be doing the festival rounds now. But the cosy atmosphere will be most welcome in October when the recurring night returns to The Notting Hill Arts Club. In the meantime for a folky fix head over to www.communionmusic.co.uk for any live shows happening across the country in the next coming months.
All photos by Michael Farrant (all rights reserved)